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Norbert Krapf, 71, still loves the wooded hills of his southern Indiana boyhood home near Jasper and the Catholic faith that formed his beliefs from infancy.
Such feelings are remarkable not for their longevity, but that they exist despite Krapf being the victim of clergy sexual abuse six decades ago at his small, hometown parish tucked away in the Jasper hills.
In recent years, Krapf—a poet, author and former Indiana Poet Laureate now residing in Indianapolis—identified his abuser to the bishop of the Diocese of Evansville in which Jasper is located, leading to the removal of the deceased priest’s many accolades and honors.
But Krapf then took a much bigger, public step. Using his gift for poetical expression, he published Catholic Boy Blues, a book of poems dealing with the abuse through the voices of the suffering boy, the coping adult, the wise Mr. Blues and the abusive priest.
The book, along with other of Krapf’s works, helped earn him the 2014 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Author Award.
More importantly, it has been instrumental in Krapf’s own healing and, he hopes, the healing of other sexual abuse victims.
This is the story of one Catholic man’s efforts to cope with the crimes inflicted upon him as a youth by a priest, the book he published to help himself and other victims of sexual predators cope, and the journey of emotional and spiritual healing accomplished in the process.
Of Krapf’s 26 published books, 11 are works of poetry. Many of the poems—whole volumes, even, including one book nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry—revolve around his southern Indiana roots, his love for the wooded hills where he hunted and explored as a child, and his German heritage.
He and his family were members of Holy Family Parish in Jasper, with Msgr. Othmar Schroeder serving as pastor.
The priest was a friend of the family, the spiritual director of Krapf’s father, a trusted role model in the parish—and a sexual predator of boys.
On weeknights before an early morning Mass, says Krapf, “[Msgr. Schroeder] would have us [altar servers] stay over, and that’s when the abuse took place. There probably were as many as 50 victims in my parish.”
Krapf learned to keep silent about the abuse. Msgr. Schroeder was respected by the adults in the community, a theme repeated in many of the poems in Catholic Boy Blues. In the poem “Once Upon a Time a Boy,” Krapf describes the beating a friend received when the boy told his father about the abuse.
“It’s a survival mechanism,” he says of the silence. “If you focused on that [abuse] as a child, you wouldn’t be able to function. You would just go to pieces, do some damage to yourself.
“I did some heavy drinking in the summers when I came home from college and worked across the street from where the abuse took place.”
So Krapf remained silent and went on with life. He considered becoming a mechanical engineer until he “fell in love with poetry” during his senior year in high school.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from St. Joseph’s College in Rensselear, Ind., and his master’s in English and doctorate in English and American literature from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
It was at Notre Dame where he met his wife, Katherine, who had recently left the Carmelite order and was completing her master’s at the university.
It was also at Notre Dame that Krapf developed a love for blues music. That musical expression would later help shape some of the poetry that led to his healing in Catholic Boy Blues.
Krapf and Katherine moved to New York City in 1970, where he taught at Long Island University and directed the C.W. Post Poetry Center, and Katherine taught middle school English.
Meanwhile, with the exception of Katherine, his silence on the abuse continued.
“I just had to be ready for [facing] it, and I wasn’t,” Krapf says. “Part of it was teaching full time” and raising the two children he and Katherine adopted from Bogota, Columbia.
It was the children who helped bring Krapf back to the Catholic faith he had distanced himself from as an adult.
“Katherine said she wanted to give them a good religious background and tradition, and it seemed like a good idea,” he says. “But it was very difficult for me.”
As Krapf’s mother aged, he and Katherine returned often to Jasper to visit her. The trips included a trek to Indianapolis to visit friends, he says, and he began to feel the pull to return to Indiana.
The couple retired from teaching and moved to Indianapolis in 2004. They settled into a townhome a few blocks from St. Mary Parish, where they have been members for 10 years.
In 2006, the incidents of Krapf’s past began to haunt him.
“There was a priest … I read about who had been moved from one parish to another, three different parishes, abusing boys,” Krapf recalls.
When the priest was relocated to a town not far from where Krapf grew up, he told himself, “I have an obligation to do something about this.”
He wrote a letter to Bishop Gerald A. Gettlefinger, then-bishop of the Diocese of Evansville. Bishop Gettlefinger called just two days after the letter was mailed.
Krapf met with the bishop, who admitted this was not the first he had heard of the accusations against Msgr. Schroeder.
By 2007, Bishop Gettlefinger had made the priest’s abuse public. Honorary photos of Msgr. Schroeder were removed from Jasper churches, and a Knights of Columbus council named in his honor was asked to change its name. The diocese offered to pay for counseling for victims of priest abuse.
Krapf was pleased by these moves, but he was far from healed.
“The case with this priest that was shunted around several parishes and then sent to southern Indiana, that really worked me up, and I needed to talk to Father Michael O’Mara [St. Mary’s pastor at the time] about it,” says Krapf.
“He said, ‘You know, Norbert, I’m a victim of this, too. Whenever we have family gatherings, and parents have their young boys with them, they kind of look at me funny, like they wonder, “Is he …? Does he …?”
“He was enormously sympathetic.”
The last poem in Catholic Boy Blues, “Epilog: Words of a Good Priest,” is dedicated to Father O’Mara.
Krapf also spoke with a spiritual director about the abuse. It was she who prompted him to address his past through poetry.
He began to write—and write, and write.
“I wrote 325 poems in just one year,” he says. “And then I wrote another 50 after that.”
The decision to publish Catholic Boy Blues was “a calling,” says Krapf.
“I could have just written the poems and healed myself and stopped there, but that was impossible, because I have a sense of vocation, a calling, which probably comes from my Catholic background.”
The poems came to him in four voices: the boy, the man, Mr. Blues and the priest.
“I had no idea when I finally decided to write the poems what they would be,” he explains. “They just came that way. They came through me.”
Krapf says the voice of Mr. Blues “just rose up inside me when I started writing these poems, and it became a healing agent.
“Mr. Blues is a creation of all these blues masters I’ve been listening to over the years. He’s a grandfatherly figure in many ways, very down to earth, very kind and compassionate, and very helpful.”
Krapf gave himself several years to edit the poems and develop the book, removing himself from the effort for months at a time “so I’d be able to see objectively and do some editing.”
During those years, from 2008-10, Krapf was selected to serve as Indiana’s poet laureate, a role which he says allowed him “to promote poetry in Indiana.” Between 2006 and the publication of Catholic Boy Blues, Krapf also published six other works.
Before the book was published in April 2014, Krapf notified Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin.
“I wrote him to let him know the book was coming out,” he says. “I said, ‘I think you should know about this. It’s only fair that you know about it.’
“I offered to send him a proof of the book in case he wanted to be prepared. He wrote a very warm, gracious reply.”
Archbishop Tobin’s support went beyond words. He offered an opening prayer at the night of Krapf’s first book signing, and he sent a copy of the book to Pope Francis.
“A reading of Catholic Boy Blues permits one to glimpse the incredible pain of victims of sexual abuse,” Archbishop Tobin told The Criterion. “The fact that such abuse occurred during the victim’s childhood and was inflicted by a priest, that is, a person whom a child would instinctively trust, makes the pain even more hideous.
“Yet the spirit of Norbert Krapf emerges from this terrible crucible to offer a testimony to the power of God to bring light out of darkness and, finally, life from death.
“I thank God that Norbert and Katherine have found healing and are willing to serve as instruments of healing for others.”
That healing can be quantified.
“That night of the book launch ... I don’t even remember how many people thanked me because either they were a survivor, or someone in their family or a friend [was a survivor],” Krapf recalls. “There’s been a strong outpouring of support.”
Krapf is now in the process of writing another book. In the meantime, he is exploring ways to bring the message of hope and healing in Catholic Boy Blues to groups through poetry readings and collaborative presentations.
“I love to collaborate,” he says. “I’ve worked with photographers, jazz musicians, blues musicians. Now I’m working with a poet therapist who is a harpist.”
The two will deliver a workshop on healing at Oldenburg Franciscan Center in Oldenburg on Feb. 21.
A recurring question Krapf says he receives at book signings and poetry readings is how he can stay in a Church that caused him so much pain.
“I tell them that I don’t feel that way,” he says. “I recognize that a big part of me is Catholic. I have a sense that this is my Church, and I’m not going to let it be taken away from me, and I’m going to help improve it.
“That might seem like a delusion of grandeur, but I believe it.”
(Catholic Boy Blues by Norbert Krapf is available online at www.amazon.com and the following Indianapolis bookstores: Indy Reads Books, the Basile History Market at the Indiana History Center, and Indianapolis Barnes and Noble bookstores.) †